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Fentanyl suspected in jailhouse overdoses
Documents provide glimpse into response at North Slave Correctional Centre after November incidents

NNSL photo/graphicKiller on the streets Part II of IV:
Yellowknifer is investigating fentanyl's toll.

Shane Magee
Northern News Services
Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Fentanyl is being eyed as the likely culprit in a set of overdoses at the North Slave Correctional Centre last November, although jail officials haven't said so publicly.

NNSL photo/graphic

Documents recently released point to fentanyl as the suspected cause of inmate overdoses last November at the North Slave Correctional Centre. - Shane Magee/NNSL photo

NNSL photo/graphic See Part I: Killer on the Streets

The fast-acting painkiller causes a high similar to heroin and is about 100 times more powerful than morphine. It's been linked to a sharp increase in overdose deaths in the past two years across Western Canada but a relatively low toll in the territory so far.

Prior to November, it had been at least five years since an overdose at the Yellowknife jail for men, a justice official said last year. Yellowknifer obtained more than 130 pages of documents about the jailhouse overdoses through access-to-information legislation as part of an investigation of illicit fentanyl.

Most details were blacked out. What's clear is the jail, with a capacity of 150, quickly moved to investigate how it happened and to consider stricter controls for visits between the public and inmates.

The investigation wasn't able to definitively confirm fentanyl or pinpoint how it entered the secure facility.

"It's difficult for us to say other than it was suspected," Parker Kennedy, the justice department's director of corrections services, said in a recent interview.

It was around 9 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 12 as some inmates were en route to recreational activities when it became clear something was wrong with an inmate. He was first taken to the jail's health centre and later to Stanton Territorial Hospital and a drug called Narcan was used to reverse the overdose effects.

Blair VanMetre, assistant director of the corrections service, relayed what transpired during the "suspected fentanyl overdose" in an e-mail to department superiors.

The jail was placed on lockdown, cells searched and some inmates strip searched. Extra staff were brought in to carry out checks to ensure no one else was overdosing. Another person was found to have similar symptoms but didn't need to go to hospital. Both men recovered.

A drug detection dog was to go through the whole building.

Immediately after the overdoses, jail officials began asking if they should get new urine tests that could screen for fentanyl.

"We're looking into this," wrote Greg Spronken, acting warden of the jail, noting it might already be picked up by a certain type of urine test.

By Feb. 3, the topic came up again. Spronken wrote to staff about "new" urine tests for fentanyl, although the content of the e-mail was redacted.

Other actions to be taken, VanMetre's Nov. 13 e-mail noted, include distributing pamphlets on the dangers of fentanyl and having nursing staff talk with inmates about it.

Narcan was moved from the medical station into emergency medical bags so nurses can access it quicker when responding to potential overdoses, Kennedy said.

Corrections staff began examining how the drug entered the facility, which last year added an exterior fence to reduce the ability of outsiders to throw something to those inside.

Justice department spokesperson Sue Glowach previously told Yellowknifer jails in the territory, like others in Canada, struggle to keep contraband out. She wouldn't explain how inmates go about smuggling drugs.

The overdoses came months after an Auditor General of Canada report on the territory's corrections' system was critical of the monitoring of contraband, which can include weapons, drugs or even unauthorized food.

There were 251 contraband incidents over the 2012-13 and 2013-14 fiscal years at NSCC, the audit found. The justice department was criticized for not adequately monitoring whether management at the jail was controlling contraband. As well, searches to uncover contraband on inmates and visitors was not occurring at a regular enough frequency.

The jail was trying to limit contraband, including restricting visitors known to pass items, and monitoring "high-risk inmates" who have known links to contraband.

While the department had data on the number of contraband incidents, the audit found it hadn't taken a deeper look at the types of contraband and methods used to bring it into the jail.

The department agreed with the findings and committed to analyzing the trends by fall 2015.

Spronken wrote Nov. 13 that "NSCC is currently conducting an investigation right now with regards to fentanyl smuggling techniques."

He later added "it looks like this (drug) might have actually come in last weekend as some phone conversations are indicating usage earlier than (Wednesday) night visits," referring to inmate calls the jail monitors. Calls to lawyers, religious figures or MLAs aren't monitored.

E-mails suggest the focus turned to visitors. Spronken wrote to staff that he wanted "to open a discussion on the current model of visitation at NSCC ... Please think about possible changes to the design and/or procedures we are using so that we can make visits more secure and thus limit the risk to staff and inmates," he wrote.

He outlined a series of ideas but those were redacted. Later that day, an updated list of "prohibited visitors" to the jail was issued, as well as six items about changes to visitation.

On Nov. 17, an e-mail about "behind glass visits" says the jail is taking several actions, including new test kits for fentanyl, new information about the dangers of the drug, and security updates.

A security bulletin issued Nov. 17 and a Nov. 18 memo to staff about visiting restrictions were completely redacted.

On Nov. 19, Joseph MacIntosh, deputy warden of operations, wrote to Spronken about "drugs brought into NSCC." The e-mail is completely redacted except for two headings above a series of bullet points: "inmates investigated" and "visitors prohibited due to investigation."

By Nov. 23, Spronken e-mailed again about "fentanyl smuggling techniques." The contents were blacked out.

Spronken wrote Jan. 6 that the investigation into the "fentanyl incident" had wrapped up. Much of the rest of the e-mail was redacted.

"Card/board games have also been allowed again in open visits to reinforce a family supportive atmosphere," his e-mail states.

The jail initiated "significant" changes to security procedures, Kennedy said in an interview but added it would be inappropriate to talk about details.

"It would be no secret to tell you that we looked at whether (contraband) comes in by mail, whether it comes with new inmates or weekend visitors," Kennedy said.

Corrections staff were among a group of firefighters and health-care workers invited to an RCMP workshop in late January about fentanyl.

Following the meetings, Spronken wrote to jail staff to highlight four points about handling the drug. He said that whenever fentanyl pills or powder is found, it shouldn't be handled without gloves. As well, only staff who attended the workshop were allowed to examine suspected substances.

John Nahanni, deputy warden for programs, replied a minute later and attached information about fentanyl. "This is so important I'm sending it again," Nahanni wrote. "I can't stress enough that we need to be very cautious - life and death..."

On Friday Yellowknifer looks at how addictions services have adapted to fentanyl's prevalence.

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